Sports Nutrition: Extracting Those Precious Seconds

  0 VolleyMob Contributors | August 10th, 2017 | Lifestyle

Courtesy of Dr. Kirsty Fairbairn

For my first piece for VolleyMob I might as well get straight to the Sports Nutrition point! This is what athletes want to eat well for right?  We all know that in sport, incredibly close margins decide the outcome of years, and years of focus, dedication and training – some sessions good and others bad. The perseverance of picking yourself up and trying again, for it all to come down to a decision or a millisecond, in one event.  I speak like I know it, but I cannot profess to great athletic ability. I know it only as a member of the support crew.  My career has involved helping both recreational and elite athletes eat in the right way so they can perform again and again.  When you demand so much from your body, you get more out of it if you invest back in. That applies to all of us, not just athletes!

Here in New Zealand we have a strong sporting culture, we embrace and enjoy sport. We take pride in ‘punching above our weight’ as the small country that we are (population ~4.7 million). We also enjoy sport to spend time with friends. Like the US, a large part of our country is rural, and our rural communities socialise around sport (for Kiwi’s it is typically around the netball court, cricket pitch or rugby field). The good news is that whether you are an Olympian, a weekend warrior, or a gym goer, there are some nutrition tips to help you get the best out of your body – in both sport and in life!

There are three main points to emphasise in sports nutrition:

  1. Eating well around training delivers much greater benefits than just eating well around competition
  2. Timing is important
  3. If you don’t have the right food with you, you won’t be eating it. Pack your food with your sports gear.

That’s right, sports drink is not on my ‘critical’ list. Neither are supplements! More on that another time perhaps.

Athletes put in hours of training so that they get better at their sport, or at least so that they feel better when taking part (as in my case!). The purpose of all that training is to create ‘adaptations’ – changes in how your body works to help it deal with the stress of exercise. Exercise is a stress, but it is good for our bodies to feel that and to adapt to it. That adaptation makes us healthier as well as stronger, faster, and able to sustain better concentration for longer. Some training adaptations are listed in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Examples of Training Adaptations to exercise

Adaptations the body makes in response to regular exercise 1,2:
Build more fuel burning engines (mitochondria) inside the muscle cells Improved ability to burn fat and carbohydrate
Improve blood supply throughout muscle Stronger heart, pumping blood more effectively
Improved ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles Able to exercise at a higher intensity before lactate is produced
Improved glucose uptake into muscle Greater muscle strength and power

(References inserted as hyperlinks: 1 Holloszy JO and Coyle  EF.  Adaptations of skeletal muscle to endurance exercise and their metabolic consequences. J Appl Physiol (Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol) 1984; 56 (4): 831-838.

2 Hawley JA , Maughan RJ and Hargreaves M. Exercise Metabolism: Historical Perspective. Cell Metabolism  2015;  22: 12-    DOI:

The goal of sports nutrition is to make food choices that help the body improve itself. To adapt, our bodies need to refuel, restore and rebuild3. They need to get the materials to do that from our diet. The human body might seem adaptable and resilient, whereby it feels like you can feed it whatever you want and it will keep delivering (externally at least, and especially when you are young). However, over time, making poor food choices will start to show in how well you can perform and concentrate. Over the long term, you might gain weight, or succumb to lifestyle related diseases.

For sportspeople, we think “from the inside out”. What stresses is the athlete placing on their body? What nutrients will their body need to restore itself and adapt well to that stress? And where to we get those nutrients from? We need clear understanding of exercise physiology and biochemistry to understand the demands being placed on them, and a great understanding of the food supply to know where to get those nutrients from and when our athletes should eat them. This does mean that nutrition advice should be individualised, tailored to each athlete and their training schedule.

Eating well before training helps you get better bang for your buck from the time you invest in exercise. Going into a session tired or dehydrated means you can’t train as well as you could have otherwise.  Also, eating well after training helps provide your body with the nutrients it needs to restore itself and create those adaptations you are looking for3. Different types of exercise cause different types of stress, hence require a focus on slightly different nutrients. Most types of exercise burn carbohydrate, hence carbohydrate is the go-to – preferably fruit and wholegrain sources: brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholegrain bread and wholegrain muesli. This is as much about providing good useable fuel to your body as it is about training your taste buds to like the right kind of diet for a long, healthy life. Nearly all types of exercise would benefit from antioxidants afterwards, which come via fruit, vegetables, tea, shellfish and nuts. Antioxidants are best to come from food, as using high dose antioxidant supplements may compromise your adaptation to the exercise in the long-term.

When you should eat depends on how long you have between sessions. If you have 12 hours or more, making sure that you eat enough carbohydrate through your day will be enough to restore your fuel stores before the next session. You don’t need to shovel down extra calories for recovery’s sake immediately after training. Although, if you usually have a meal at some point afterwards or healthy snack during the day, you could shift the timing of that snack to within 40-60mins of your workout if you want.   If you have two training sessions within 4-8 hours of each other, then you would benefit from a carbohydrate rich snack within 40-60 mins of the first session to optimise the restoration of your muscle glycogen (fuel) stores4.   If you have done resistance exercise, adding some protein to that snack will help your muscle fibres rebuild themselves into stronger ones too. Good snack ideas are listed in Table 2, but remember, every individuals needs are different!

Table 2: Post-exercise recovery snack ideas

Carbohydrate foods Protein included
Wholegrain sandwich with honey Wholegrain sandwich with peanut butter or cheese
Small can of creamed rice Small can of tuna
A banana or large pear Small can of baked beans (+/- wholegrain bread)
2 tubs of yoghurt 300-500mL flavoured milk
A handful of dried fruit (wash down with water) A handful of nuts

Of course, you cannot reap the benefits of improved nutrition supply to your hard working body unless you have the food with you! I have seen many athletes fall over at this hurdle by forgetting to take food with them. Hours later they are so hungry that they walk into a shop and want to eat everything in there! These poor food choices then compromise the return on investment from the previous session. Don’t let that happen to you!

The most important step you can take is to pack your food when you pack your training gear!

Then you can train hard, again, and again, and again… and reap the rewards ?

All the best xxx

Dr Kirsty.

If you want more advice on how to eat around your exercise, no matter what kind of exercise you like to do, feel free to contact me via or seek out your local licensed or registered Sports Dietitian. Follow me on Facebook: InvigorateNutritionDietitian and on Twitter and Instagram: @KFSportsNut.

Any advertisements associated with this article do not constitute an endorsement by me.

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